Her first period class was canceled for the day.

Kaname should have been happy. She wasn't. Another group of guys had pestered her to the point of distraction, but that wasn't the reason for her downtrodden state.

Nobody made the troublesome boys disappear or cry out for help. The tormentors she had been beset by on the previous day had no doubt run afoul of a young soldier's sense of justice, or his habit of protecting a certain blue-haired girl.

"Sousuke." Kaname was certain Sousuke had been responsible for the happenings in the quadrangle, at the track, and inside the library. The fact that he would do such things... but would not let her know that he was on campus... suggested a number of possibilities to her.

Might still mean something to him?

"You're jumping to conclusions, girl." Kaname sighed. It was entirely possible that Sousuke was simply acting to protect someone under attack by a superior force. His actions might have merely beena result of his sense of justice.

He didn't show up today. Or, if he had, he didn't intervene. He probably wasn't spending his time watching her. Or, if he had been doing so, her actions the night before might have been the straw that broke the otaku's back.

Kaname wouldn't blame him. Standing at her doorway, listening to his words, she had felt as if someone had stabbed her in her heart. She had been very hurt when he was reassigned. She took it out on him, for her own good. She never really stopped to think about how he might have felt.

"Can you understand how that made me feel?"

"No, Kaname. I cannot. Not after you never once answered my letters or spoke to me on the phone."

"But... you have to understand... it was hard..."

"Yes, it was. No doubt you wanted me gone. Perhaps that is understandable."

She threw some bread scraps to the pigeons near her bench. The birds all rushed in to get their mouthfuls, scratching and flapping, pushing the other pigeons out of the way. It was every bird for his or herself.

That hadn't been the way Sousuke treated her in high school. He always put her first. Kaname realized that a lot of what he had done was the result of orders. But, she had to admit that he had come to care about her. That's what made his going away so hurtful for her. It's also what made her feel so down today.

He hadn't wanted to be reassigned. He had even gone so far as to open up to her before they returned to Tokyo. He had tried to call her and to write her.

"And what did I do?" Kaname felt a tightness in her chest.

It was hard to think about things this way. Why was she even bothering? There was no way to turn back the clock. What was done was done. Besides, what was her goal now? To wash away her own guilt? To try and make amends? Or to try and get Sousuke to feel about her the way he once did, and see where things might go from there?

Did it matter?

She was Kaname Chidori. She wore an albatross around her neck.

Even if she found that she could care about that big idiot again, what would happen? Maybe he wouldn't return her feelings, leaving her feeling worse than before. Or, maybe he would care, getting her hopes up. What sense did that make? She had no idea how long he had been assigned to Tokyo University, but missions end. When they are over, he moves on to the next one.

"Damn you Sousuke."

Why did she have to see him again?

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Yes.

The sun was brighter.

Kaname was certain of it!

Her friends had noticed that she seemed kind of down, so they treated her to lunch at one of her favorite restaurants. They all had tales of woe to tell, and laughed over each other's trials and tribulations with the opposite sex.

Kaname no longer felt as if she were being singled out by Fate.

Life is hard at times. You just need to make it through such times, because life is wonderful, too. Friends. Good food. Laughter. A change of perspective.

She had spoken about Sousuke in the general sense, and it helped her come to terms with the things she had done. No one thought that she was a terrible person. It had been a tough situation. A number of her friends would have done the same thing. So, she wouldn't have to worry anymore about Sousuke today. What was the likelihood that she would even see him, given his talents and recent behavior?

Waving to a number of people leaving the previous class, Kaname took a seat near the front of the classroom. After taking a few moments to brush her hair, she took out her notepad and a new pre-sharpened pencil.

This would be a great day for learning!

When the entire roster of students had found their way into the room, the teacher stood up near his podium. "I hope you all had time to study sufficiently last night."

Kaname swallowed hard. Study?Oh No! There was an oral quiz scheduled for today. How could she have possibly forgotten that? She had written it down in three different places and had even posted a note on the refrigerator.

Sousuke. Damn him! It was all that jerk's fault…

"Today's questions will deal with Ecosystems and Biomes. I will call on each of you with randomly selected questions. You will have adequate time to answer, if your thoughts are presented in an organized and contemplative fashion. At the end of each question, additional students will be allowed the opportunity to provide correct answers for extra credit." The teacher began calling on students in alphabetic order.

Kaname's heart was pounding. She was a perfectionist, and knew she would not be able to do her best. She had been attentive in class, and had been diligent in her reading, so she should still have a good chance at a modicum of success.

"Kaname Chidori…"

"Uhhh... yes, Sir..." Kaname cringed. Her voice had cracked. She began to grow angry when she heard some chuckles behind her.

"Explain why there is a rainforest in Zaire and a desert in Algeria."

What? Settle down, Kaname. Think! There are a number of things to consider. The angle of incidence of sunlight. Air temperature. Rising air masses. Falling air masses. Altitude temperature differences. Relative humidity.

Kaname mumbled her answer, thinking furiously. She couldn't even remember what she said.

"Adequate, Miss Chidori. Not nearly up to your usual high standards, but adequate."

Kaname didn't know whether to feel upset or relieved. The whispers around her certainly were not helping her mood and state of concentration.

"Before I ask Miss Chidori her next question, does anyone have something constructive to add?" There was a pause. "Alright, Mr. Sagara. Since you are the only one with your hand up."

Kaname nearly fell out of her seat. Sousuke?He was in her class? She had never noticed that before. Damn that otaku and his talent for secrecy and concealment.

"It is not a problem. Miss Chidori's answer was admirable for someone in the midst of emotional turmoil." Sousuke's remark had the class murmuring.

Kaname clenched her teeth. She remembered all too well what it felt like to grasp a halisen firmly in her hand.

"Along the equator the sun is nearly directly overhead all the time. The angle of incidence of sunlight is nearly vertical so that the energy is high per unit area. The land surface absorbs this energy and re-radiates it as heat." Sousuke spoke in a strong and confident voice, not once glancing in Kaname's direction, despite mentioning her name previously. "When air is heated by the re-radiation of the sun's energy from the surface it expands, becomes less dense and rises. As it rises the pressure decreases in the upper atmosphere and the air cools further. As the air cools the relative humidity increases because cool air can hold less moisture than warm air. When relative humidity reaches 100 percent, clouds form and rain falls on the rain forest."

Sousuke paused. Nodding his head, he met the glances of the students around him, as if he had a particularly important point he wanted to get across.

"I have no doubt that Miss Chidori knew these things as well. Her inability to express her knowledge is unfortunate, but should not be held as an indication of less than normal intelligence. Appearances are often deceiving." A number of boys who had felt Kaname's wrath in the past looked at each other and smiled. "When the air mass reaches the upper limits of the atmosphere it flows north and south and gets plunged downward about 30 degrees north or south when it meets other air masses flowing in the opposite direction. This descending air is dry partly because it has lost its moisture on the way up in the first place, but as it falls the pressure increases causing the temperature to increase. As the temperature increases it becomes even drier in terms of relative humidity. That sucks the air out of the ground, the plants, and the animals and you have a desert."

"Excellent answer, Mr. Sagara. The textbook did not describe things in that much detail. I look forward to hearing you answer your own questions later." The teacher coughed, and then took a drink of water. "Miss Chidori, your second question."

Kaname was so furious, she was almost in no condition to answer a simple 'yes or no' type question, much less the kind of exacting questions the teacher wasx apt to ask. She was barely able to speak. Sousuke's commentary had her trembling with rage.

"As a result of the fires, the vegetation of a forest is burned to varying degrees in different parts of the forest. In some areas the trees and undergrowth were destroyed. In other areas only the undergrowth was burned, leaving the larger trees intact. In most places the soil was NOT destroyed by the fire. Taking that into consideration, and being told that over a period of years we would expect the vegetation to return to the area affected by the fire and re-establish a forest similar to that in nearby areas not affected by the fire, I would like you to comment on the following two issues: (a). Describe the physical environment at the surface of the soil a week or so after the fire was extinguished; and (b). How will pioneer plants change the physical environment during the first stage of succession so that the pioneer plant species are eventually replaced by other species?"

"Great!" Kaname blurted out, realizing that she had verbalized her thought. She had also brought her hand down on the table with tremendous force, snapping her pencil and sending her note pad to the floor.

"Miss Chidori!" The teacher was aghast.

"Teacher, Miss Chidori will gain control of herself after her moment of impractical emotion subsides. She is extremely competent under stressful situations. Few people would be as effective." Sousuke scowled when the students around him made comments that Kaname couldn't hear.

The young soldier's support did not inspire any feelings of gratitude in Kaname at that moment. Trying to pull herself together, she haltingly gave her answers.

"Adequate again, Miss Chidori. I will say that your behavior is out of place in the classroom. If you have issues to work through, I ask that you bring them to the Student Councilor." The teacher looked around the room again. He waited a bit.

Kaname wanted to crawl into some dark cave and hibernate there for a while. Afterwards, she would want to come out with renewed strength and determination, so that she could tear Sousuke into little pieces.

How could things get any worse?

"Seeing that no one else wishes to answer, go ahead Mr. Sagara."

Ooooooh! That does it. If that moron trumped her again...

"I shall refrain from commenting on Miss Chidori again, as it seems to adversely affect her state of mind." Sousuke stood to give his answer.

"What doesn't?" One disappointed suitor asked, causing the class to break out in laughter, despite the teacher's great displeasure.

Sousuke simply turned and stared at the young man who made the quip. The boy stopped laughing, swallowed, and sat down quickly. That look from Sousuke had said more than words ever could.

Kaname's heart skipped a beat. Sousuke was defending her. Why?

"Having heard a pathetic attempt at humor, I shall now give my answer."

Kaname smiled despite herself, looking at the quivering boy and saying "Hmmmppphhh!" That idiot was doing it again. One minute she wanted to launch him from a steam catapult without an ArmSlave, and the next she just wanted to... to...

"As Miss Chidori noted, the vegetation would be gone, leaving a charred soil surface. When the sun shines it is very hot. When it is dark the soil cools rapidly. When it does not rain the soil becomes very dry. Also, when it rains the soil is quickly saturated and erosion washes away the soil. Environmental conditions are harsh and variable. Much like the life that some people are forced to live." Sousuke ran his hand through his hair.

He looked down at his shoes, and his voice thickened momentarily.

"One thing is worth remembering. The only thing constant is change." Sousuke cleared his throat. "The seeds or roots of pioneer plants left in the soil start to sprout and send out roots through the soil... the harsh conditions are actually necessary for these particular plants to start growing and become established. Plants and their roots soften the fall of rain drops and keep the soil from washing away. The plants and leaf litter retain moisture in the soil. The shade of the plants cools the soil and slows the germination of seeds that require light. The plants extract water from the soil and evaporate it into the air, increasing humidity. If that is not sufficient, I could continue."

The girls who Kaname had seen before were sitting a row in front of Sousuke. It looked like they were about to swoon. One of them smiled up at Sousuke, but he didn't appear to take any notice of her.

"Continue, Mr. Sagara. Your response has been very instructive so far." The teacher took another drink of water.

"As Miss Chidori cleverly noted in her answer..."

Kaname sat frozen hearing that. Why did she feel like she was turning red again? She was busy hating that big jerk! Wasn't she?

"...The seeds of the pioneer plants require the wide open, harsh conditions of the charred forest floor to germinate and become established. Their seeds can not germinate in conditions where other plants have already become established. However, the seeds of the following community in the succession require the conditions produced by the pioneer plants to germinate and become established. Then they will also go on to change the environment in different ways. And so on and so on until you get a climax community established that can remain fairly stable until the next disturbance."

At first, it seemed as if Sousuke had finished his answer. The teacher began scanning the student list to find the next person to examine. But, the young operative began spealking again. "There will always be another disturbance. The successional process will start all over again. There is never really an end." Sousuke added his final thought in a somewhat downcast voice.

Kaname felt tears coming to her eyes. She had no doubt that Sousuke was looking at his own life in those same terms, in part because of the fact that he went from mission to mission, never really have a chance to put down roots. But also, for him, Afghanistan had been scorched earth. Only in that environment could the person that Sousuke was now have taken root. Successive changes did not wipe him out, but they did serve to make him who he was today.

Just who was he today?How did he differ from the boy she last knew three years ago? Had he simply grown older? Did removing him from the environment of Jindai High School and students his own age stop the process that had started?

"Excellent again, Mr. Sagara. I will ask that you refrain from answering any other questions, except for your own later on. You have earned the maximum amount of extra credit."

The other students were called on in succession. When the teacher came around to Sousuke, he correctly described how and why the climate of Champaign-Urbana would change if the tilt of the earth were changed from 23.5 degrees to 45 degrees, and then explained why matter is considered to cycle in an ecosystem while energy flows through an ecosystem. When he was finished, he asked if he might be excused from class. The teacher gave him permission.

Kaname watched him go with mixed feelings. Was he simply being the same efficient machine he was before... off to clean his weapons... check in with base... or go on some kind of guard duty? Or, did thinking about his life in the same terms of the ecosystem hurt him in ways he might not have been able to be hurt before?

She squeezed her eyes shut hard and told herself that it didn't matter. Her curiosity would get her into nothing but trouble. Wasn't it enough to have had her heart broken once before by that moody military maniac? Why risk falling into the same trap again?

What could she do to help get him off of her mind?Maybe she just needed to go on a date with someone new.

Who knows? She might find someone right, this time.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Kaname was somewhat on edge.

It was a week after her decision to take another chance at dating.

She had finally agreed to go on a date with a goalie from the soccer team. He was ruggedly handsome, if somewhat arrogant, and good bit less than scholarly.

Throughout the school year, he had been rather persistent, and Kaname thought that she might want to date someone different than she usually did. A number of her friends cautioned her against that boy, having heard less than complimentary things about him. Others were jealous, wishing that he would ask them out.

"It's only a date, girl. Calm down. It's not like this is an arranged marriage or anything."

Applying her lipstick, Kaname wondered about her motives. Was this just some way to try and get someone else off her mind someone she didn't want to think about at that moment? Would that be fair to her date? Could she expect to have a good time that way?

There was only one way to find out.

She had fallen into a rut lately, and needed to find some way out. When her date arrived, things had started off fairly well. He well well-dressed, nicely groomed, and had arrived with an impressive bouquet of flowers. He had tried to sneak a feel early on, but she had no trouble getting around that. It was almost heart-warming in a way. It was nice to feel wanted. At least in some fashion...

Kaname wasn't into cars, but the boy's BMW was an impressive machine. Likewise, she didn't care much for the noisy bar scene, but her date had chosen a particularly fun night club. After a few drinks, she actually found herself having a good time. It wasn't because of her date... she didn't find herself connecting with him at all. It was nice she was nice to be out, instead of being shut away in the library or her apartment.

As the time passed, the excitement began to wear off and she found herself growing somewhat uncomfortable with the situation. Her date had met up with a large number of his buddies, most from the rugby and baseball squads. None of them had brought dates along.Some of them were people she had run ins with in the past.

But, inexplicably, Kaname found herself growing less concerned, oblivious to any possible problem. In fact, she couldn't ever remember feeling that mellow or detached from her surroundings. Was she falling asleep? That might explain the glimpse she thought she had of Sousuke there, being pulled along by those girls. That could only be a dream, right?

Time seemed to rush ahead. Kaname knew that things must have happened, but she couldn't remember them. Why was she outside, in the dark? Why was her arm somewhat sore? Hadn't she been on a date?

What was going on?

"You will be OK, Kaname."

That was Sousuke's voice! Was she still in the middle of some dream?

"Sousuke? What? Where?" Kaname grimaced, banging her head on a low hanging tree branch when she tried to stand up.

There was the sound of moaning in the dark. Further away, she could hear the sound of police sirens. Night birds called out sporadically.

"By chance, I was at the same club as you. The arrangement did not seem entirely proper to me. I performed surveillance to confirm or discredit my concerns. Here. Drink some water. It's from the fountain, so it may not have a pleasing taste. Do not drink too much. You will not wish to dilute your urine sample." Sousuke held a cup of water up to Kaname's lips.

Kaname drank sparingly. "Please, Sousuke. I don't understand." She felt frightened. Could he be talking about some kind of plot, related to her being Whispered? What had happened to her date? Had he been caught in the middle of some terrorist activity?

"The boy with you poured a small phial of liquid into your drink. I cannot imagine any ethicalreason for him to do that, given that you were looking in a different direction. In recent years a new kind of threat has reared its ugly head at parties, on campuses, and in nightclubs... the called "predator" or "date rape" drugs. If you are not aware of them, you should be. You are responsible for your own safety." Sousuke almost sounded disapproving.

"Date rape drugs. But, Sousuke... did they..." Kaname brought her hand to her mouth.

"Date rape drugs, technically speaking, can be any substance that renders you incapable of saying no or asserting yourself and your needs. This can include things like alcohol; marijuana; other street drugs; designer drugs like ecstasy; over-the-counter sleeping pills and antihistamines; even cold medications. However, the term "date rape drug" usually applies to the drugs Rohypnol, Gamma Hydroxy Butyrate, and Ketamine Hydrochloride." Souske's voice went from neutral to fierce in the beat of a heart. "They did not have opportunity to harm you, Kaname."

"Sousuke?" Kaname felt dizzy. Not just from whatever drug she had been given, but from the magnitude of the situation."What happened?" She was scared. She put her hand out and touched Sousuke, needing to know there was someone familiar nearby.

"I know that you did not wish to know me any longer, Kaname. That did not mean..." Sousuke stopped. He was silent a moment. "I saw what the boy did. I took note of your change in mental status. When you left with the group of them, I followed, easily eluding the girls who coerced me into going to the club. The words that the perpetrators spoke to one another did not leave anyroom for misunderstanding." There was steel in Sousuke's voice. To Kaname, the sound was exciting and frightening at the same time.

"I didn't taste anything Sousuke. I didn't even notice any major change at first." Kaname was in denial. She didn't want to believe what happened had happened. She couldn't bring herself to believe that something worse had come close to happening.

"Kaname, the drugs are virtually undetectable. They are tasteless, odorless and colorless. All traces of the drugs will leave the body within 72 hours of ingestion and are not found in any routine toxicology screen or blood test... doctors and police have to be looking specifically for them and they have to look quickly. That is how we will aid them in their search tonight. The sirens are growing louder. The police should be hear soon. I have their conversation on tape. You test results will be crucial."

"But..." Kaname's voice quivered, "This isn't really true is it Sousuke? This didn't really happen. You're not over-reacting like you used to do, are you? Maybe I feel this way because I drank too much."

"Those kind of drugs are easily slipped into drinks and food and are very fast acting. They render the victim unconscious but responsive with little or no memory of what happens while the drug is active in their system. The drugs also make the victim act without inhibition, often in a sexual or physically affectionate way. Like most drugs, date rape drugs render a person incapable of thinking clearly or of making appropriate decision. Victims are poor witnesses in a legal sense. They are also difficult to interrogate in my line of work." Sousuke reached his hand out to touch Kaname's shadowy face. "I'm sorry, Kaname. You should be safe from those boys in the future. I doubt they will act that way again."

Kaname put her hand on Sousuke's. "What happened to them..."

"I did not show good school spirit, Kaname. A number of sports clubs will not be able to hold up the honor of our institution this year." Sousuke almost sounded self-satisfied. Kaname never remembered hearing anything like that in his voice before.

What else new was there?

"Sousuke!" Kaname felt some of her spirit return to her then. "You didn't answer my question."

"They were not Specialists, Kaname. They should not have gone up against one. They should not have tried to harm you." Sousuke's last words were said in a near whisper.

"Sousuke?" Kaname's heart was beating fast again for some reason. The young soldier didn't answer. "Sousuke, are you OK? And why does my arm hurt?" Kaname noticed a bandage on her arm.

"I am still able to walk, Kaname. I believe my shirt is torn. That is a problem. Iliked that shirt. My portable med kit contains a syringe and some tubes. I took a venous blood sample in case the hospital might prove to be in cahoots with any of the perpetrators." Sousuke sounded proud of himself. That might be new too, but as far as Kaname was concerned, it was inappropriate.

"You took my blood? You're not a doctor, Sousuke. You... you..." Kaname's voice was rising in pitch.

"Is this the time when you will strike me, Kaname? If so, I suggest you swing straight ahead. Otherwise, you may injure yourself on a tree branch or the brick from the fountain." Sousuke didn't sound like he was joking.

"No... uhhh... I was not going to... well... hit you or anything." Kaname felt embarrassed. She had been just about to whallop Sousuke something good.

"I see. Then you have matured admirably in other ways too."

"Other ways? How have I matured admirably, Sousuke?" Even in that serious situation, Kaname sensed the potential for getting Sousuke to admit something choice. She wanted him to answer. Sousuke remained quiet. "Sousuke, what other ways?" Kaname felt on familiar ground again. It was just what she needed at that moment.

"I believe the police will be arriving any moment. Let me help you here." Sousuke put his arm around Kaname's waist.

Kaname swallowed hard for a moment. The arm around her waist had her weak in the knees. No. It must be a side effect of the drug."Thank you Sousuke. I appreciate everything you did for me. There is one more thing I need, though." Kaname smiled. Sousuke couldn't hear a smile, and it was too dark for him to notice.

"I will do what I can to help, Kaname."

"Good. So, what other ways have I matured, Sousuke?"

"Uhhh..."

The answer would have to wait. A number of police vehicles pulled up, and Sousuke took Kaname over to speak with the arriving officers.

At the hospital, Kaname gave a number of samples, and both she and Sousuke told the police everything they knew. When they had all done what needed to be done, Kaname went to use the restroom.

When she came out, Sousuke was gone.